Posts Tagged ‘Swiss Literature’

I’ve wanted to read a Robert Walser book for a while now. I decided to read this one, ‘The Assistant‘, for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

Joseph lands up one day morning at the office of the inventor Tobler. Joseph is hired to work as Tobler’s assistant and handle correspondence and enquires and other things that assistants do. Tobler’s wife and children are also there in that big villa. Joseph is from a poor background and he enjoys this new lifestyle. His employer and his family are pleasant to him and his workdays are comfortable. What happens during the course of the next year, when Tobler’s business starts with a lot of promise and bright future dreams and ends in near ruin and what experiences Joseph has when he is a part of it, is told in the rest of the story.

I liked ‘The Assistant‘, but I didn’t love it. The story is interesting and it shows how being an inventor is a perilous life and how things can sink or swim in a short span of time. Robert Walser’s descriptions and observations on nature (and sometimes Joseph’s dreams and fantasies of nature) are a pleasure to read. I highlighted many beautiful passages.

I’m glad I read my first Robert Walser. I am a little disappointed though – I was almost expecting a Thomas Mann style observation on life, but I didn’t get that. What I got was Walser’s observations on life. The book has an interesting afterword by the translator Susan Bernofsky which is very insightful to read.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“The depths have no shape, and there is no eye that can see what they are depicting. They are singing as well, but in notes no ear can catch. They reach out their long moist hands, but there is no hand able to grasp them. They rear up on either side of the nocturnal boat, but no knowledge in any way present knows this. No eye is looking into the eye of the depths. The water disappears, the glassy abyss opens up, and the boat now appears to be drifting along, peaceful and melodious and safe, beneath the surface of the water.”

“Such a slender and delicate script already hinted at great wealth. Nearly all capitalists wrote just like this man: with precision and at the same time somewhat offhandedly. This script was the handwritten equivalent of an elegant easy bearing, an imperceptible nod of the head, a tranquil expressive hand motion. It was so long-stemmed, this writing, it exuded a certain coldness, certainly the person who wrote like this was the opposite of a hot-blooded fellow. These few words: concise and courteous in their style. The politeness and succinctness extended even to the intimate format of his blindingly white letter paper.”

“How true it is that each of the four seasons has its own particular scent and sound. When you see spring, you always think you’ve never seen it like this before, never looking so special. In summer, the summery profusion strikes you as new and magical year after year. You never really looked at fall properly before, not until this year, and when winter arrives, the winter too is utterly new, quite quite different from a year or three ago. Indeed, even the years have their own individual personalities and aromas. Having spent the year in such and such a place means having experienced and seen it. Places and years are intimately linked, and what about events and years? Since experiences can color an entire decade, how much more powerfully and swiftly they can color a short year. A short year?”

“And the world, was it changing? No. A wintry image could superimpose itself upon the world of summer, winter could give way to spring, but the face of the earth remained the same. It put on masks and took them off again, it wrinkled and cleared its huge, beautiful brow, it smiled or looked angry, but remained always the same. It was a great lover of make-up, it painted its face now more brightly, now in paler hues, now it was glowing, now pallid, never quite what it had been before, constantly it was changing a little, and yet remained always vividly and restlessly the same. It sent lighting bolts flashing from its eyes and rumbled the thunder with its powerful lungs, it wept the rain down in streams and let the clean, glittering snow come smiling from its lips, but in the features and lineaments of its face, little change could be discerned. Only on rare occasions might a shuddering earthquake, a pelting of hail, a deluge or volcanic flare disturb its placid surface, or else it quaked or shuddered inwardly with worldly sentiments and earthly convulsions, but still it remained the same. Regions remained the same; skylines, to be sure, were always waxing and expanding, but a city could never fly off and find somewhere else to live from one hour to the next. Streams and rivers followed the same courses as they had for millennia, they might peter out in the sand, but they couldn’t suddenly leap from their beds into the light open air. Water had to work its way through canals and caves. Streaming and burrowing was its age-old law. And the lakes lay where they had lain for a long, long time. They didn’t leap up toward the sun or play ball like children. Sometimes they became indignant and slapped their water in waves together with a great whooshing noise, but they could transform themselves neither into clouds one day nor wild horses one night. Everything in and upon the earth was subject to beautiful, rigorous laws, just like human beings.”

Have you read ‘The Assistant‘? What do you think about it?

Read Full Post »

I wanted to read a book by a Swiss author and so decided to read Martin Suter’sThe Last Weynfeldt‘. I read this for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

Adrian Weynfeldt is an art expert. He helps in writing art catalogues, valuing works of art, organizing art auctions. He is in his fifties. He is a man of simple, steady habits. One day, very surprisingly, he comes home with a beautiful woman. The next day morning, when he gets up, he discovers that the woman is standing at the balcony, ready to take the plunge. Adrian tries to talk her down. The strange sequence of events which arise from this and which flow rapidly takes us into the art world, the world of painters and paintings and art auctions and art forgeries.

The Last Weynfeldt‘ is kind of a thriller. A sleek one though. The start is spectacular and though the rest of the book can’t keep up with that, it is still interesting. There is a lot of information in the book about Swiss art and artists. There is also a lot of information about furniture designers and architects. One of the things I loved was the description of food. Martin Suter takes a lot of pleasure in writing about food. I made a list of things that I’d like to try. Especially ravioli ricotta with sage butter (have never tried sage butter), buckwheat blini (have tried blini and I love it, but I don’t think I’ve tried buckwheat blini), Birnbrot (pastry filled with dry pears – sounds wonderful!). The characters in the book are interesting – I especially liked Adrian, his housekeeper Frau Hauser who behaves like his mom, being affectionate and tough at the same time, his secretary Veronique, and the beautiful woman who tries jumping out of his balcony, Lorena. The story has a surprising fascinating ending, but I won’t tell you what 😊

I enjoyed reading ‘The Last Weynfeldt‘. I won’t call it my favourite thriller, but it was pleasant reading for a Sunday afternoon.

I’ll leave you with a couple of my favourite passages from the book.

“He believed that regularity prolonged life. There was also the opposing theory: regularity makes each day indistinguishable, and the more events and habits are repeated, the more the days resemble each other and the years too. Till your whole life feels like one single year. Weynfeldt didn’t believe this. If you do the same things more often, go to the same places and meet the same people, the differences become subtler each time. And if the differences are subtler then time passes unnoticed. Someone you see every month instead of every year never appears to age. And you never appear to age to them. Repetition slows down the passage of time. Weynfeldt was absolutely convinced of this. Change might make life more eventful, but it undoubtedly made it shorter too.”

“Adrian was waiting for Lorena to call, and waiting was not an activity for him; it was a state, not such an unpleasant one. Like flying. As soon as he boarded an airplane, he was placed in a state of absolute passivity. Of course he ate the food served him, and read a newspaper, or a book. But he was passive as far as flying itself was concerned. He knew there was nothing he could do to influence it and delegated it unconditionally to those who could.”

Have you read ‘The Last Weynfeldt‘? What do you think about it?

Read Full Post »

I discovered Max Frisch’sAn Answer from the Silence‘ while browsing in the bookshop. I am happy and excited that in these days when we discover most books through the internet, it is still possible to visit the bookshop, spend sometime browsing, and discover a beautiful book. This is the first book I read for this year’s German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

The story told in Max Frisch’s book goes like this. The main character, whose name we don’t know, is staying in an inn near the mountains. He is thirty years old. He is passing through and he is trying to climb one of the nearby cliffs. We learn that he feels that he hasn’t accomplished much, has drifted from one dream to another, and finally decided that he is going to attempt climbing a cliff which no one has ever done before, and if he succeeds, he feels he would have accomplished something and not just lived a regular, mundane life. And then he meets a woman at the inn. And they begin a wonderful conversation. What happens after that and how their friendship evolves and whether this man climbs the cliff and finds the meaning of life is told in the rest of the story.

An Answer from the Silence‘ is a slim book at around a hundred pages. It is also a beautiful book. It is one of the great introvert novels like Marlen Haushofer’sThe Wall‘, Alexis M.Smith’sGlaciers‘, Robert Seethaler’sA Whole Life‘, Peter Stamm’sUnformed Landscape‘, Muriel Barbery’sThe Elegance of the Hedgehog‘ and Rabih Alameddine’sAn Unnecessary Woman‘, in which the main character lives a rich inner life and contemplates on some deep questions. It is the kind of book I love. There are so many beautiful passages in Frisch’s book that I couldn’t stop highlighting. The character of Irene, the woman who starts a conversation with our mountain-climbing main character, is so beautifully depicted, and she was my favourite character in the book. Max Frisch’s prose is beautiful and flows serenely like a river. There are beautiful descriptions of the mountains and nature. One of my favourite descriptions went like this :

“Outside there is no light visible that has been lit by human hand. There are just the stars glittering above the mountains and it’s bright, so that you can even see the blades of grass on the ground nearby, almost as bright as day, though it’s a different gleam, a lifeless gleam pouring over things, dull and without shadow, very strange, as if one were on another planet where there’s no life, on a planet which, with all its rocks and ice, is not made for man, however indescribably beautiful it may be.”

The book also asks some deep, profound questions on life which are relevant even today. This book came out in 1937, during the time when Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann were still active, and so it is not surprising that it asks some profound questions. I haven’t read a Max Frisch book before and I am surprised that he is not that well known today, because this book is really good, as good as the best ones of Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann. Frisch seems to have led an interesting life too – he was a writer and journalist, but couldn’t pay his bills, and so went and studied architecture and became an architect, and while he was in the army during the Second World War, he started writing again and he continued his successful architecture practice alongwith his writing after the war. It seems he was also in a relationship with my favourite, Ingeborg Bachmann. I want to read more about him and I want to read more of his books.

I will leave you with two of my favourite passages from the book.

“It’s just like a relay race, he laughs, a relay race with no finishing tape; they hand life over to us and say, ‘Go on now, run with it, for twenty or seventy years.’ And you run, you don’t look at what you have in your hand, you just run and hand it on. And what, he says, if one of us asks what the aim of it is? You could be nasty and grab one of them by the sleeve and take him to one side and when he opens his hand – nothing. And that’s what we’re running for, one generation after another? It’s nothing but a circus, round and round in a circle…”

“Why do we not follow our longing? Why is it? Why do we bind and gag it everyday, when we know that it’s truer and finer than all the things that are stopping us, the things people call morality and virtue and fidelity and which are not life, simply not life, not a life that’s true, great, worth living! Why don’t we shake them off? Why don’t we live when we know we’re here just this one time, just one single, unrepeatable time in this unutterably magnificent world?”

Have you read Max Frisch’sAn Answer from the Silence‘? What do you think about it?

Read Full Post »

I discovered Peter Stamm through Caroline’s review of his short story collection, ‘In Strange Gardens and Other Stories. When I thought of reading one of Stamm’s books for German Literature Month, I decided on ‘Unformed Landscape’, as the storyline of this book appealed to me very much. I finished reading it yesterday. Then I opened the book on the first page and re-read all my favourite passages again. And again. Here is what I think.

Kathrine is a Customs inspector in a coastal village in Norway. It is a village in Norway, but it is really a place where different people live. As one of the early pages in the book says :


Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Norway, up here they all looked alike. The borders were covered by snow, the snow joined everything up, and the darkness covered it over. The real borders were between day and night, between summer and winter, between the people.


Kathrine is married to a well-to-do man, Thomas, and has a son from an earlier marriage. On paper everything is hunky-dory. The only problem is that Kathrine’s husband tries to change his wife everyday. He imposes his lifestyle, values, interests, habits on her and at some point Kathrine feels that she is living not in her own house but in someone else’s house.


She had thought they were building something together, but it was just Thomas building her into his life, trying to mold her, to train her, until she suited him, and suited the type of life he planned to lead. Until her own apartment was as foreign to her as his parents’ house, as he was, and as the life she led with him.


Then one day things reach a flashpoint. Kathrine has a one-night stand with her childhood friend, Morten. When her husband and his family discover this, things turn unpleasant. Soon, Kathrine packs her bags and leaves her village, takes a ship and goes into the sea. She has read about all the wonderful places of the world in books like Jules Verne’s novels. Though she has never travelled south of the Arctic circle, ever in her life, now she wants to see some of these exotic places and have interesting adventures. But when she goes to one new place after another, meets new people from different countries, makes new friends, she is in for a surprise. Things are not what she imagined them to be. They are very different. But they are also not very different from the way things are in her coastal village.


Kathrine felt disappointed. So many years she had been dreaming of a trip to the South. She had supposed that everything would be different south of the Arctic Circle. She had pictured worlds to herself, wonderful, colorful worlds full of strange animals and people as in the books of Jules Verne she had liked so much as a child. Around the World in Eighty Days, Journey to the Center of the Earth, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. But this world wasn’t very different from the world of home. Everything was bigger and noisier, there were more people around, more cars on the streets. But she had hardly seen anything that she hadn’t seen at home or in Tromso. There’s not a lot of room in a person, she thought.


She had seen so much in the last two weeks, so much that she had never seen before, and yet she had the feeling she hadn’t seen anything at all. That people had different faces, she had already known. She had known that there are some houses that are bigger and more beautiful than others. A thousand times a thousand makes a million, and it wasn’t necessary to go to Paris to find that out.


Kathrine meets one her old friends Christian, in Paris. They spend some time together. Then Christian has to leave. Now, Kathrine has to decide what she wants to do with her life. Should she go back to her old life – her husband who doesn’t care about her feelings, her son, her old job? Or should she go back to her old village and see whether there are still sparks in her relationship with Morten? Or should she start a new life in one of the new places that she is visiting? What Kathrine decides on and what happens after that form the rest of the story.


‘Unformed Landscape’ is a beautiful, slim book. I liked it very much, starting from the title, to the name of the heroine (I have seen it spelled Catherine, Catharine, Katherine, Katharine and Kathryn, but this is the first time I have seen it spelled Kathrine – how many variations exist in one name!), to the beautiful prose of Peter Stamm, to the beautiful evocation of the Norwegian landscape, to the beautiful passages which come throughout the book. Even the last sentences of the book – ‘It was fall, then winter. It was summer. It got dark, and then it got light again’ – said many things. Peter Stamm’s spare prose was perfect. (I really tacked in this sentence here, so that I could use the phrase ‘spare prose’ 🙂 By the way, is it ‘spare prose’ or should it be ‘sparse prose’? Is there a difference between both the phrases? What do you think?) I was dreading that there will be an unpleasant surprise in the end, like some of my favourite authors had done before – like Muriel Barbery does in ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ and E.L.Swann does in ‘Night Gardening’. Fortunately, Stamm doesn’t do that. The ending is nice and elegant, even if it has a predictable element to it. I liked most of the characters in the story – the people who live in the village and the people whom Kathrine encounters during her travels. Even her husband Thomas has some redeeming qualities, though I didn’t like him much.


After reading ‘Unformed Landscape’ I thought about it. Or rather I thought about one aspect of it. The writer Peter Stamm is Swiss, but most of the story is set in Norway and the main characters are Norwegian. In a sense it is a Norwegian novel. But it wouldn’t be classified under Norwegian literature. It would be classified under Swiss literature and under German literature, because it was written in German. I thought of other books which were similar. I could think of Patrick Süskind’s ‘Perfume’ and ‘The Pigeon’ (the novelist is German, the books are written in German, but all the characters are French and the story happens in France) and Vikram Seth’s ‘An Equal Music’ (the author is Indian, the book is written in English, all the characters are English and the story happens in England). We normally see this happening in historical novels and in detective novels (like Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series), but it is interesting that this is happening in literary fiction too. What do you think about this?


‘Unformed Landscape’ is one of my favourite reads of German Literature Month. Its potential competitors for the top spot might be Herta Müller’s ‘The Land of Green Plums’ and Bernhard Schlink’s ‘The Reader’. It is also one of my favourite reads of the year. I want to read all of Stamm’s books now. It is nice that he doesn’t write chunksters. I want to read his book ‘Seven Years’ next.


I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.


The Music


The music in the bar was lovely. There was something glassy about it, and the rhythm seemed to fit with Kathrine’s heartbeat, her breathing, which kept accelerating. She made herself breathe more slowly, and before long she had the feeling she was only breathing out, or in and out simultaneously. It was as though she’d left the room, and was passing through a landscape, hovering over a landscape of sounds. When she shut her eyes, she saw brightly colored patterns that opened out like delicate fans or flowers. The patterns were yellow and purple and hemmed with black lines. They looked like gentle hills. It was beautiful, and Kathrine felt at ease.


Laughing alone


Kathrine laughed, and was surprised at the sound of her laughter in the quiet apartment. It wasn’t her laugh at all. She laughed to hear herself laughing. Strange, she thought, that you cry alone, but never laugh. I’ve never laughed alone before.




      “Is your wife competent?”

      “Very. Our marriage works best when I’m away. Then she can do whatever she wants.”

      “And when you’re there, then she does whatever you want, is that it?”

      “Then I do what she wants.”


Being bored


She had never been bored, even though her life was monotonous, even though nothing happened in the village. Her favorite days had been the ones where everything was exactly as always. Only Sundays had sometimes bothered her.


On Faith


      She didn’t believe in God. Almost no one in the village believed in God, perhaps not even the vicar, who was a nice man, and did his job same as everyone else.



      “The people here believe in God, they just don’t believe in Jesus,” Ian said once, “they believe in the Creation, but they don’t believe in love.”

      “Well, Creation exists,” said Kathrine, “whereas love…”



Kathrine didn’t believe what the minister was saying, and yet his words were comforting to her. Perhaps it was enough if he believed it, or Alexander’s wife believed it, or Ian or Svanhild. Perhaps it was enough if the minister just spoke the words. Perhaps it was enough that they were all assembled here, that they were thinking of Alexander, that they would remember him later, and this day and this hour.


You can find Tony’s review of the book here and Amy’s review of the book here.


Have you read Peter Stamm’s ‘Unformed Landscape’? What do you think about it?

Read Full Post »

I haven’t read a lot of German literature, except for a few books by Hermann Hesse, one by Johnann Wolfgang von Goethe and one by Pascal Mercier (Mercier was actually Swiss but he wrote in German). So sometime back when I was discussing about books with Bina from ‘If You Can Read This’, I requested her to recommend interesting German authors. One of the authors that Bina recommended was Friedrich Dürrenmatt (Thanks Bina 🙂 ). Dürrenmatt was Swiss and he wrote in German. He is famous for his plays ‘The Visit’ and ‘The Physicists’ but his mystery novels are also famous. I decided to try reading his mystery novels first. So recently I got three books by Dürrenmatt – The Inspector and his Hangman’, ‘Suspicion’ and ‘The Pledge’. I finished reading them recently. Here is the review.



What I think


The three books of Dürrenmatt came in two volumes – the first one had ‘The Inspector and his Hangman’ and ‘Suspicion’ and the second one had ‘The Pledge’. The editions I got were published by University of Chicago press. They had beautiful covers, were printed in good quality paper which had a delightful fragrance and the font was beautiful – they were exquisitely produced! I am dying to get more books by this university press! I love university presses!


‘The Inspector and his Hangman’ is a story about the murder of a policeman and how Inspector Barlach investigates the case to unmask the killer. There is also a crime behind a crime here and Dürrenmatt skillfully uses the scenario to ask interesting questions on whether people are intrinsically good or not, and whether crimes can be detected most of the time or not. The climax and the revelations at the end are unexpected and add excitement to the story.


‘Suspicion’ is a story where Inspector Barlach discovers that there might be a Nazi who is posing as a director of a private clinic for wealthy patients. He registers himself in the hospital as a patient and tries to discover the truth for himself. There are not many secret revelations in ‘Suspicion’ as the identity of the villain is known in advance. But the story moves slowly into dangerous terrain and takes us there without us realizing it – the blurb said this about the book which I could totally identify with – “Once I got into the story I could no more have stopped reading than the drug addict in the book could have given up morphine”. One of my favourite things about the book was that Dürrenmatt made some of the villains ask some tough questions about life, luck, good and evil, nihilism and unfairness, fighting for justice and whether it can change anything. In one place one of the good characters also asks some interesting questions on these topics. I loved these conversations, passages and questions. They made me think.


‘The Pledge’ is about the murder of a young girl and how Inspector Mathäi promises the mother of the girl that he will bring the murderer to justice, how he sets a trap like a master fisherman to catch the killer and how things go wrong after that. It is structured as a story told by a former Chief of police to a novelist who writes detective fiction to illustrate how real cases are very different from detective fiction and how the real world makes people look like fools while in detective fiction all the loose ends are tied up in the end. I liked this structure of the book. There is a scene in the book where a suspect is interrogated which I found quite chilling. It went like this – “You ran to Mägendorf because you wanted to turn yourself in, but then you lost courage. The courage to confess. You must find that courage again, von Gunten. And we want to help you find it.”  The blurb said this about the book, which I liked very much – “Each word falls into place like a footstep of approaching doom” J ‘The Pledge’ also made me very sad in the end, because it was a tragic story which had a sad ending. I haven’t felt like this while reading a mystery novel before. I also loved a few other things about the book which were not really related to the story – the mention of Lindt’s milk chocolate (my favourite!), St.Gallen (where I went many years back for a symposium and about which I have many fond memories) and fairy tales – by Hans Christian Andersen, Brothers Grimm and the  A Thousand and One Nights.


So what do I think about the three Dürrenmatt stories, when I consider them together? How are they as mysteries? Which one is my favourite? I think the three of them are very different. ‘The Inspector and his Hangman’ had a lot of suspense, and the identity of the murderer is known only towards the end. So, as a mystery it would score very high. ‘Suspicion’ was a story where the villain’s identity is nearly known at the beginning and the story moves faster because the main character moves closer and closer towards danger. While I cared for the main character and was worried about his fate, my favourite parts of this book were the beautiful insightful passages that different characters speak – especially the villains. When I was a boy, I hated villains in stories, but now I regard them as complex characters who are more interesting than the good guys (like Hans Landa in ‘Inglourious Basterds’ J). The passages spoken by the villains in this book were really awesome – they are passages that I am going to read again. ‘The Pledge’ also had a mystery which was resolved only in the end, but more important than the mystery was how the book depicted the way people stake their careers in solving one mystery or one problem and how things can go bad from there and how one can get obsessive with one thing for one’s whole life and how life will make one look silly in the end. It was a heartbreaking story and it made me sad. I am a sucker for tragic stories and so I loved it. I loved the three Dürrenmatt stories in different ways but if I can pick only one favourite, it has to be ‘The Pledge’. It has been made into a movie starring Jack Nicholson, and I want to see that now.


I had just one issue with the books – specifically with the collection which had ‘The Inspector and his Hangman’ and ‘Suspicion’. It had a foreword by Sven Birkerts and I started reading it first, but after reading a couple of pages, I felt that it was summarizing the plots and had so many spoilers that I stopped reading it and dived into the book proper. Later, after I finished the book I came back and read the foreword. I was disappointed that the foreword had so many spoilers and if one reads it completely I feel it would ruin one’s experience of reading the actual book. Some editions (for example Wordsworth editions) carry a warning before the ‘Introduction’ / ‘Foreword’ saying that there are spoilers and it is advisable if readers first read the book and come back and read the introduction later. I think a warning like that would be better. Alternatively, it would be nice if books like this didn’t have introductions but had an ‘Afterword’ where the writer of it can say what he / she wants and it can contain any number of spoilers. But it also carries the risk that after reading the book, a reader might not want to read the ‘Afterword’ J Atleast I want to be careful from now on, while reading forewords and introductions.




Here are some of my favourite passages from the three books.


From ‘The Inspector and his Hangman’


Shifting Opinion


The reason for his return was not his love of Bern – his golden grave, as he often called it – but a slap he had given a high-ranking official of the new German government. This vicious assault was the talk of Frankfurt for a while. Opinions in Bern, always sensitive to the shifts in European politics, judged it first as an inexcusable outrage, then as a deplorable but understandable act, and finally – in 1945 – as the only possible thing a Swiss could have done.


How to treat one’s boss


He…lit a cigar, and went to Lutz’s office, well knowing how Lutz always resented the liberty the old man took by smoking in his room. Only once, years ago, had Lutz dared to object but Barlach with a dismissive gesture replied that he had served ten years in Turkey and had always smoked in the offices of his superiors in Constantinople, a remark that carried all the more weight in that there was no way to disprove it.


Suspicion and Detection


      “Dr.Lutz told me you have a definite suspicion.”

      “Yes, Tschanz, I do.”

      “Commissioner, since I have become your assistant in the Schmied murder case, don’t you think it might be better if you told me who it is you are suspecting?”

      “You see,” Barlach answered slowly, deliberating each word as carefully as Tschanz did, “my suspicion is not a scientific criminological suspicion. I have no solid reasons to justify it. You have seen how little I know. All I have is an idea as to who the murderer might be; but the person I have in mind had yet to deliver the proof of his guilt.”

      “What do you mean, Inspector?” Tschanz asked.

      Barlach smiled. “Simply that I have to wait for the evidence to emerge that will justify his arrest.”

      “If I am to work with you, I have to know who it is I am targeting with my investigation,” Tchanz declared politely.

      “Above all we must remain objective. That applies to me, as the one who holds the suspicion, and to you, as the one who will conduct most of the inquest. I don’t know whether my suspicion will be confirmed. I await the results of the investigation. It is your job to find Schmied’s killer regardless of my suspicion. If the person I suspect is in fact the killer, you will find him in your own way – which unlike mine, is impeccably scientific. And if I’m wrong, you will find the right man, and there will have been no need to know the name of the person I falsely suspected.”


From ‘Suspicion’


The Law and its Subtleties


“I see, you like mathematics,” she replied…”I thought right away you’re the type of fool who swears by mathematics. The law is the law. X = X. The most monstrous phrase ever to rise to the eternally bloody night sky that hangs above us,” she laughed. “As if there were some sort of moral law that held true for man regardless of the amount of power he possesses. The law is not the law. Power is the law; that is the decree written over the valleys of our destruction. Nothing is itself in this world, everything is a lie. When we say law, we mean power; when we pronounce the word ‘power,’ we think of wealth, and when the word ‘wealth’ passes our lips, we hope to enjoy the vices of the world. The law is vice, the law is wealth, the law is cannons, monopolies, political parties. Whatever we say, it is never illogical, except for the statement that the law is the law, which is the only lie. Mathematics lies, reason, intelligence, art, they all lie. What do you want, Inspector? We’re deposited on some brittle shoal, without being asked, and without knowing why; there we sit staring into a universe, monstrously empty and monstrously full, a meaningless waste, drifting toward those distant cataracts that we’ll eventually reach – the only thing we know. We live in order to die, we breathe and speak, we love, we have children and grandchildren, so that we and our loved ones and those we have brought forth out of our own flesh can end up as carrion and disintegrate into the indifferent, dead elements we are composed of. The cards were shuffled and dealt and gathered together : c’est ça. And because all we have is this drifting shoal of dirt and ice to which we cling, our dearest wish is that this our only life – this fleeting moment within view of the rainbow that arches across the foam and stream of the abyss – should be a happy one; that the earth – our only, meager grace – should give us all her abundance for the brief time she carries us. But that is not how it is, and it never will be, and the crime, Inspector, is not that life isn’t that way, that there is poverty and misery, it’s that there are poor and rich people, that the ship in which we are all sinking together has cabins for the rich and powerful next to the mass quarters for the poor. We all have to die, they say, so it doesn’t matter. To die is to die. Oh this farcical mathematics! The dying of the poor is one thing, and the dying of the rich and powerful is another, and there is a world in between, the stage on which the bloody tragicomedy between the weak and the powerful takes place. The poor man dies the way he lived, on a sack in a cellar, on a tattered mattress if he climbs a little higher, or on the bloody field of honor if he reaches the top; but the rich man dies differently. He has lived in luxury and wants to die in luxury, he is cultivated and claps his hands as he kicks the bucket: Applause, my friends, the show is over! Life was a pose, dying an empty phrase, the funeral an advertisement, and the whole thing a good deal. C’est ça.”


“What do you believe in?”


“A man of our time does not like to answer this question : What do you believe in? It has become improper to ask that. People don’t like to make grand pronouncements, as they modestly say, and least of all to give definite answers, such as : ‘I believe in God the father, the son and the holy ghost,’ as the Christians used to answer, proud that they were able to answer. Nowadays people like to keep silent when they are asked, like a girl when she’s asked an embarrassing question. Basically one doesn’t really know what it is one believes in. It’s not nothing, God knows, it’s definitely something, though one’s notions of it are rather vague, like some sort of inner fog – something like humanity, Christianity, tolerance, justice, socialism, loving one’s neighbor, things that sound rather hollow, and people admit that, too, but when they think : It doesn’t matter what you call it; what’s important is that you live a decent life according to your best conscience. And they’ll try to do that, partly by making an effort and partly by letting things drift. Everything they do, their deeds and their misdeeds, happens by chance, good and evil fall into their laps like lottery tickets; it’s by chance that one of them turns out well and the other ill. No matter : That fancy word, ‘nihilist,’ is always at hand as a weapon to throw – with a lot of bluster and even greater conviction – at anyone who makes them uneasy. I know these people, they are convinced it’s their right to claim that one plus one is three, four, or ninety-nine, and that it would be unfair to ask them to answer that one plus one is two. Anything that’s clear looks rigid to them, because in order to have clarity, you need character. They don’t realize that a determined Communist – to use a far-fetched example; for most Communists are Communists the way most Christians are Christians, out of a misunderstanding – they don’t realize that a person who believes with his whole soul in the necessity of revolution, and believes that only this path, even if it is paved with millions of corpses, will one day lead to a better world, is less of a nihilist than they are, than some Mr.Müller or Schmidt who believes neither in God nor in the absence of God, neither in hell nor in heaven, but only in his right to make money – a belief that they are too cowardly to postulate as a credo. And so they muddle along like worms in some sort of general pulp that doesn’t allow for any decisions, with a nebulous notion of something that is good and right and true, as if there could be such a thing when everything has been reduced to pulp.”


The Only True Adventure


“We can’t save the world as individuals, that would be a task as hopeless as that of poor Sysyphus; it is not up to us, nor is it up to any man of power, or any nation, or the devil himself, who is surely more powerful than anyone; it is in the hand of God, who makes his decisions alone. We can only help in particular cases, we cannot affect the whole. Those are the limits of the poor Jew Gulliver, those are the limits of all human beings. Therefore, we should not try to save the world, but we must endure it. This is the only true adventure left to us at this late hour.”


From ‘The Pledge’


Staying within limits


“…we can’t weave the nets of police surveillance so tightly that no crimes ever happen. Crimes always happen, not because there aren’t enough policemen, but because there are policemen at all. If we weren’t needed, there wouldn’t be crimes. Let’s keep that in mind. We have to do our duty, you’re right about that, but our first duty is to stay within our limits, otherwise we’ll end up with a police state.”


Fantasy and Reality


“You see, children don’t just draw what they see, they also draw what they feel about what they see. Fantasy and reality are mixed together.”


Postcard world


The sun stood low now, the shadows were tremendous, the wide valley lay steeped in a strong golden glow, and the sky above was a pure blue; but I hated everything. I felt as though I have been exiled to some huge, awful postcard world.


Reality and the bookish world


“…People hope the police at least will know how to put the world in order, which strikes me as the most miserable thing you could possibly hope for. But unfortunately, these mystery stories perpetrate a whole different sort of deception. I don’t even mean the fact that your criminals are always brought to justice. It’s a nice fairy tale and is probably morally necessary. It’s one of those lies that preserve the state, like that pious homily ‘crime doesn’t pay’ – when all that’s required to test this particular piece of wisdom is to have a good look at human society;…No, what really bothers me about your novels is the story line, the plot. There the lying just takes over, it’s shameless. You set up your stories logically, like a chess game : here’s the criminal, there’s the victim, here’s an accomplice, there’s a beneficiary, and all the detective needs to know is the rules, he replays the moves of the game, and checkmate, the criminal is caught and justice has triumphed. This fantasy drives me crazy. You can’t come to grips with reality by logic alone. Granted, we of the police are forced to proceed logically, scientifically; but there is so much interference, so many factors mess up our clear schemes, that success in our business very often amounts to no more than professional luck and pure chance working in our favor. Or against us. But in your novels, chance plays no part, and if something looks like chance, it’s made out to be some kind of fate or providence; the truth gets thrown to the wolves, which in your case are the dramatic rules. Get rid of them, for God’s sake. Real events can’t be resolved like a mathematical formula, for the simple reason that we never know all the necessary factors, just a few, and usually a rather insignificant few. And chance – the incalculable, the incommensurable – plays too great a part. Our laws are based only on probability, on statistics, not on causality; they apply to the general rule, not the particular case. The individual can’t be grasped by calculation. Our criminological methods are inadequate, and the more we refine them, the more inadequate they get. But you fellows in the writing game don’t care about that. You don’t try to grapple with a reality that keeps eluding us, you just set up a manageable world. That world may be perfect, but it’s a lie. Forget about perfection if you want to make headway and get at the way things actually are, at reality, like a man; otherwise you’ll be left fiddling around with useless stylistic exercises.


Have you read these books or other books by Friedrich Dürrenmatt? What do you think about them?

Read Full Post »